Cripple Creek, A Name Steeped in Song Lore

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article have appeared in The Colorado Gambler, as well as Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County and Cripple Creek District: Last of Colorado’s Gold Booms

As legendary as the history of Cripple Creek, Colorado is, it is no wonder the place has been immortalized in poetry and song. Local and national authors have addressed the district and its colorful past in numerous books, articles and poems. In the live entertainment circuit, there is a circle dance, the “Cripple Creek Shuffle,” which was choreographed by Larry and Terri Boezeman some decades ago which is based on the song, “Cripple Creek,” by Jim Rast and Knee Deep. There have even been two musical groups calling themselves the Cripple Creek Band. One is here in America ; the other, in Germany, put out its own album/CD in 1996.

Cripple Creek has also been paid tribute in a handful of songs. Many of them have grown obscure over time, but a few actually do more than imply a passing mention to the famous gold district on the back side of Pikes Peak. The three most popular of these are The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek”, Neil Young’s
“Cripple Creek Ferry,” and the age old traditional tune, “Goin’ Up To Cripple Creek.” But whether any, or all three, of these songs are really about Cripple Creek, Colorado has remained up for debate among music lovers and history buffs.

Up on Cripple Creek she sends me
If I spring a leak, she mends me
I don’t have to speak, she defends me
A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one

—The Band

The 1969 rendition of “Up On Cripple Creek” by The Band was the group’s first—and only—song to make the American Top Thirty singles. Over fifty years later, Canadian musician Robbie Robertson’s catchy lyrics are still heard on classic rock stations all over the country. In Cripple Creek itself, the song has become a sort of mascot tune for the town. But is the song really modeled after Cripple Creek and the kind of place other people only dream of living in? Robertson says not. “‘Up On Cripple Creek’ is…somehow an extension of this American mythology, this Americana,” Robertson once told writer Peter Viney, “going, ‘We’re not dealing
with people at the top of the ladder, we’re saying what about that house out there in the middle of that field? What does this guy think with that one light on upstairs, and that truck parked out there? That’s who I’m curious about.”

However listeners conceived it, ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ has become a legendary tune in the history of rock and roll. The song has been recorded by several artists since its debut. Among them are Bill Monroe and Leo Kottke. But the easy melody and down home lyrics have made “Up On Cripple Creek” especially popular in Cripple Creek, where nearly every local band has included the song in their repertoire for decades.

Hey hey Cripple Creek ferry
Butting through the overhanging trees
Make way for the Cripple Creek ferry
The water’s going down,
It’s a might tight squeeze

—Neil Young

Rocker Neil Young’s ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’ appears to have nothing to do with Cripple Creek, Colorado. It is, however, an interesting addition to the renditions of songs connected to the gold district. The song debuted on Young’s 1970 album, “After The Gold Rush,” a far-reaching link, if you will, to the gold rush Colorado’s Cripple Creek District experienced beginning in 1891. And, since it came out only a year after The Band’s song, “Cripple Creek Ferry” experienced a similar success on music charts. More than likely, however, the song was styled after Cripple Creek, Virginia – although Mr. Young never seems to have commented on it either way. Located south of Wytheville, Virginia’s Cripple Creek is even home to a namesake river (not a creek) running through it. According to author Leland Feitz, the Cripple Creek in Virginia is also located in close proximity to boyhood home of Bob Womack, the little cowboy who is credited with discovering gold in Colorado’s Cripple Creek. When Womack’s family settled in what is now the Cripple Creek District, they may have named the area after their favored homeland. As for Cripple Creek, Virginia, the tiny post office closed in 2011 and the area is now referred to as an “unincorporated community.”

Hey, I got a girl at the head of the creek
Goin’ up to see her about two times a week
Kiss her on the mouth, sweet as any wine
Wrap herself around me like a sweet potato vine

Goin’ up Cripple Creek, goin’ on a run…

If neither of the other songs can be ascertained as being styled after Cripple Creek, Colorado, the old time melody “Goin’ Up To Cripple Creek” can. This traditional bluegrass tune has been a mainstay of Cripple Creek’s famous melodrama shows, as well as numerous plays, commercials and a number of musical groups. In fact the song goes back so far, no one even seems to know who wrote it anymore. In the bluegrass circuit, the catchy little ditty is often accompanied by a fiddle, banjo, or even a mouthbow. The instruments fit right in the with lyrics such as these:

Now the girls up Cripple Creek about half grown
Jump on a boy like a dog on a bone
Roll my britches up to my knees
Wade ol’ Cripple Creek whenever I please

The song, which appears to have been written circa 1917, has been performed a number of well-known artists, including Buffy St. Marie. Locally, Cripple Creek, Colorado’s own Danny Griffith, the musical director for the melodrama shows at the Imperial Hotel for many years, performed the tune at dozens of shows and even recorded it on an album. Today, the song continues to make a reprise at the melodrama shows that are now held at the Butte Theater. It is true, “Goin’ Up To Cripple Creek” is often written off as too old fashioned and even corny. It is, however, a lively little jingle worthy of recognition, if only because it is believed to have truly been written about the Cripple Creek of Colorado.

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